Book review: On China, by Henry Kissinger

By Rana Mitter  /  The Observer, LONDON

Sun, May 22, 2011 - Page 14

The Chinese vice-premier, Wang Qishan (王岐山), raised eyebrows on his visit to Washington earlier this month when he announced that Americans were a very “simple people.” He may well have had US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in his sights, after a prominent interview in which she criticized China for its recent crackdown on dissidents. One Chinese commentator came up with a tortured explanation as to why this Sino-US spat was actually a good thing: when nations know each other better, he suggested, they feel less need to be polite and can say what they really think.

Well, perhaps. But if there is one narrative that marks the global society of the early 21st century, then it is the increasing unwillingness of Washington and Beijing to understand each other’s viewpoints. Although millions of Westerners visit China each year, the history and motivations of the regime in Beijing and the 1.3 billion people that it rules remain a source of deep mystery to the West in a way that is not true for India, the other Asian giant. Best-selling books tend to fuel the disorientation rather than reduce it, whether they are airport-style business manuals on how not to lose your shirt or analyses that predict either imminent global takeover by the Middle Kingdom or its sudden implosion.

This makes former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s On China an unusual and valuable book. Of all the Westerners who shaped the post-World War II world — and there is little doubt that he did — he is one of the very few who made the American relationship with China the key axis for his world view. This is all the more remarkable since Kissinger’s realpolitik also profoundly shaped American relations with Europe, the Middle East, and southeast Asia. Yet at four decades’ distance, it is the approach to China in 1971 and 1972 that stands out as the historically crucial moment.

Historians would now argue that the Nixon visit to China in 1972 did not come out of the blue. During the 1960s, both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations discussed a warming of relations with China, but were frustrated by Chinese hostility, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, when it was hard to find anyone to pick up the phone in Beijing. Yet the decision of a Republican administration to reach out to an ideologically radical and xenophobic communist regime in the midst of a vicious land war in Asia still seems a bold one and, unlike many policy decisions of the Cold War, one that has stood the test of time.

The book is really two distinct narratives built into one. The first is a long-range sweep through Chinese history, from the very earliest days to the present. For the most part, this is elite history, where statesmen do deals with other statesmen. Yet there are human touches that reveal something of the writer. One of the commonest comparisons to Kissinger is the 19th-century statesman Metternich, the pin-up for pragmatic diplomacy. Here, Kissinger implies an interesting alternative comparison with his pen-portrait of Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), the Chinese foreign minister of the late 19th century. Li had to make various compromises on Chinese sovereignty, including cession of railway rights to Russia, which led to his being reviled by his contemporaries. A century later, Li’s reputation is still controversial in China, but he is widely regarded as an original thinker who played a difficult hand with skill. The parallel does not need to be labored. And one imagines it gave Kissinger some pleasure to cite a figure few have heard of in the West, but who is known to every educated Chinese person.

The historical merges into the personal in the early 1970s, when Kissinger, as national security adviser, becomes a central figure in the narrative during the secret approach to Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) China. Inevitably, the sections many will turn to first are those where Kissinger reveals the details of his conversations with top Chinese leaders from Mao to Jiang Zemin (江澤民). The contours of the story are familiar, but the judgments on figures who have passed into history still have freshness because they come from the last surviving top-level figure who was at the 1972 meeting. “Mao dominated any gathering, [premier] Zhou [Enlai] (周恩來) suffused it,” he notes. “Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating.” He also gives us details of the one occasion when he (and possibly any Westerner) saw the unflappable Zhou lose his temper: when Kissinger suggested that Chinese Marxism had adapted the tenets of traditional Confucianism. Zhou may have been particularly incensed since the insight was in many ways quite accurate.

One aspect of Chinese politics that Kissinger stresses is the tendency of leaders to make statements and let listeners draw their own inferences and that is a technique that he employs throughout the book. He notes that some observers consider Mao’s cruelty a price worth paying for the restoration of China as a major power, whereas others believe that his crimes outweigh his contribution.

But Kissinger’s view is discernible only where he hints that a “recent biography” of Mao (presumably Jung Chang and Jon Holliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story) is interesting but “one-sided.” After all, it is a Chinese tradition that senior mandarins make their views known by praise or condemnation of a piece of literature; it was a favorite tactic of Mao’s.

Nixon’s role also comes in for scrutiny by his former secretary of state. Despite his fondness for “vagueness and ambiguity,” among the 10 presidents whom Kissinger has known, Nixon “had a unique grasp of long-term international trends.” It is hard not to see there yet another subtle criticism of more recent administrations which have failed to consider the impact of their policies in the longer term, particularly in the Middle East.

The final part of the book has a distinctly elegiac feel, as if Kissinger is worried that the rise of a new assertive nationalism in China along with “yellow peril” populist rhetoric in the US may undo the work that came from that secret visit to Beijing in 1971. His prescription — that the West should hold to its own values on questions of human rights while seeking to understand the historical context in which China has come to prominence — is sensible. But policymakers in Washington and Beijing seem less enthusiastic about nuance than their predecessors. The hints and aphorisms batted between Zhou and Kissinger have given way to a more zero-sum rhetoric.

Henry Kissinger will always remain a controversial historical figure. But this elegantly written and erudite book reminds us that on one of the biggest questions of the post-World War II world his judgment was right, and showed a long-term vision that few politicians of any country could match today. Unless, of course, Hillary Clinton is even now on a secret mission to Tehran.